Category Archives: Union of Concerned Scientists

Electric Vehicles, Coal & Dirty Electricity

Coal in Stocking

Since it is the Holiday Season, and some traditions continue, such as busting PEVs because they allegedly use dirty electricity and can’t then be zero emission, I include this brief op-ed from last week for your reading pleasure.  The final take away is simple- where you live and how your local utilities get their electricity do play a role in how clean your PEV runs and since most states increasingly support alternative forms of renewable energy, your PEV will likely continue to get cleaner.  So enjoy the season and stop feeling guilty!

Tuesday’s Portland Press Herald Article by Seth Borenstein, titled, “For electric cars, it’s not simple to be green,” offers outdated and misguided commentary on the issue of “dirty” electricity and whether electric vehicles are more of a problem than a solution when it comes to transportation-based emissions.  As a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2012, “State of Charge; Electric Vehicles Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-cost Savings across the United States” concluded, EVs are vastly superior in their emission profiles over most regions of the US.  It boils down to where the electricity comes from.  If you live in the Wyoming where coal is used for base load generation, your EV does contribute to GHG emissions on a par with a combustion engine.  That is one reason why coal-fired power plants are no longer viable for electricity generation and are being moth-balled.  Conversely, if you live in Maine, with an increasingly healthy mix of renewable energy generation sources, including wind, tidal, hydro, solar and biomass and the cleanest grid in New England, operating your electric vehicle is much less carbon intense than your neighbor’s gas-powered car.  The good news is most states, like Maine, have a renewable portfolio standard that has resulted in ongoing efforts to clean up their electricity generation, so an EV actually drives cleaner the longer you own it!  That is not true of your gasoline vehicle.  Mr. Borenstein chooses to highlight the coal connection rather than the clean connection.  I leave you with the final sentence of the PNAS study quoted by Mr. Borenstein, which reads, “Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.” (Emphasis added).

Maine, and all the New England states, should be proud of their efforts to promote clean electricity and their EV-owners can drive with clear consciences.

Follow this link to go to my actual op-ed.

Dirty Electricity; The New Oxymoron

A recent Headline from the NYT Sunday paper-How Green are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In.  suggests that EVs may not be the cleanest form of transportation available and cites a soon to be published Union of Concerned Scientists study.   As an example of the tone- “[W]here generators are powered by burning a high percentage of coal, electric cars may not be even as good as the latest gasoline models — and far short of the thriftiest hybrids.”

(Portland General Electric’s Boardman Coal Fired Plant, now slated to close.)

I re-raise this issue of whether an EV from well to wheel is the greenest transportation alternative because we are now parsing it down region by region, yielding some very interesting variations. See the national graphic found at Carbon In, Carbon Out, Sorting out the Power Grid. For example, Buffalo, NY’s electricity has THE highest per mile equivalency of any region in the country, which means that its kWh generation is the cleanest in terms of carbon emissions and it would take an ICE vehicle having 86 mpg to equal the carbon emission of a Nissan Leaf charging in that region. (Thank you, Niagara Falls) Which zipcode(s) are the worst? Hmm. Think Red States- a swath that cuts from the Dakotas to the midwest to the Southeast.  These are regions heavily reliant on coal generation.  Perhaps most interestingly, Hawaii had one of the worst carbon equivalencies- it would only take a 37 mpg vehicle to equal the carbon emission of a Leaf in Hilo, HI.  Apparently Hawaii needs to accelerate its transition away from non-renewable, imported oil and coal if it is to truly benefit from BEV’s zero emission potential.  And I believe that will happen, as it has adopted several progressive laws incentivizing consumers to buy EVs and landowners to get charging infrastructure in place.  [Note- Denver apparently has a coal problem and is the dirtiest electricity in the country, needing only a 33 mpg vehicle to equal a Leaf.]

But back to the point.  I see that even a 37 mpg ICE is a high efficiency engine compared to the national average, which in 2008 was 25 mpg.  So, even in a region hosting the most dirty electricity out there, in order to beat the emission savings of a Nissan Leaf,  a consumer would still have to buy a small economy car capable of very high mileage.  In most other jurisdictions, few mass marketed vehicles exist (other than a hybrid Prius perhaps 53/46 city and highway mpg) that are capable of attaining the 50 mpg range equivalency.

The transition to renewable energy and away from coal burning plants will continue to raise the mpg equivalencies, region by region. It will also mean that EVs will get cleaner the longer you drive them.  Consider the other benefits.  All the money we spend on electricity, in even the dirtiest jurisdiction, stays in the United States and gets fed into a virtuous loop of economic activity.  Electricity  is domestically produced, comes from diverse and renewable resources and has traditionally been viewed as a quasi-public resource such that it’s pricing structure is extremely stable.  Charging station infrastructure uses an existing electric grid and utilities already have built in excess capacity to meet the load demands of millions of EVs.

We just need consumers (and National newspapers) to start recognizing that clean coal and dirty electricity are both oxymorons.